War Hysteria and Post-Dobbs Reactions
by Rachel MacNair
The backlash to the overturn of Roe was predictable. I wrote a piece on the psychology behind Explaining Belligerency awhile back, and that’s a major way of explaining it on this issue and many others. That helps account for not just what we’re going through now, but the bits of belligerency we’ve had all along.
But what we’re going through now is more intense. Besides, the human mind is such that there are likely to be several explanations for how it works.
Here I want to add another concept from peace psychology: the normal mode of thinking, and the mythic mode/cartoon mentality/fairy-tale view that goes with what’s commonly called war hysteria.
Good vs. Evil, No Dissent Allowed
Lawrence LeShan, in his book The Psychology of War: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness, preposes we have different modes of perceiving reality at different times. We move between these modes easily and automatically.
In his example, a businessman at his business thinks about things in a way that goes by his senses. LeShan calls this the sensory mode. The rules go with a realistic understanding of how the world operates. But at home, the businessman hears his child crying out in fear. As he dashes upstairs, he says a prayer that the child be all right. It would never occur to him to pray that way at work. That’s not how work works. Seeing the child is fine, he holds her and assures her everything’s all right and safe. He wouldn’t say this at work either – it’s inaccurate. But he isn’t lying to his child. The rules of comforting a frightened child are different. How he sees reality is different. The businessman shifts naturally between these different perceptions of reality with their different rules.
For war, LeShan proposes there’s often a shift to a mythic mode. The rules for understanding what’s going on change dramatically. Reasons that make so much sense in the sensory mode become quickly forgotten.
A prime example is the escalation to World War I. International travel in Europe was way up, so dehumanized views of the enemy weren’t caused by lack of exposure to other peoples. Many pacifist groups existed, and the international socialist movement was fairly strong. Once war broke out, the socialist groups shifted to belonging to their own nations and enthusiastically supported it. All the work on explaining what was wrong with war went down the tubes, remarkably quickly. LeShan suggests this is because people were no longer in a sensory mode that takes reasoning into account. Large numbers of people shifted to the mythic mode. The war was on.
Below is a chart, paraphrased from LeShan’s book, which explains the difference between normal peace-time thinking and what has come to commonly be called war hysteria.
Literary Example: The Wizard of Oz
Kansas, in black and white, is the real world. Dorothy travels to the mythic land of Oz. In this full-color world, rules change.
She kills two women. When the first woman is accidentally killed by the falling house, the people immediately sing and dance and throw a party. When the second woman is killed, her guards give Dorothy a cheer. Dorothy stays a heroine because both women are witches. They represent Evil. They can’t be reasoned with. They aren’t real people.
Back in Kansas, the same actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West plays Miss Gulch. Miss Gulch threatens Dorothy’s dog Toto. Yet the worst that befalls her is that she gets told off by Auntie Em and her plot to destroy Toto is foiled when Toto runs away. Both fates fit her offenses. The audience can cheer.
How would the audience feel if Dorothy had killed Miss Gulch?
Even accidentally, this would be sinister. Though the audience is against Miss Gulch, that doesn’t mean a killing could possibly be justified. Kansas is the real world. People may be mean, but they aren’t Evil Incarnate. Dorothy would no longer be an innocent person.
Shift to the Fairy Tale View
The point at which the mobilization to war becomes strongest is when enough of the population has made this shift that those people who remain in sensory mode are in danger. Questioning the rightness of the cause becomes treason. Many such people therefore keep quiet or join the shift.
The beginning of “The War Prayer,” by Mark Twain describes this shift especially well. The excitement generated by the war, the withdrawal of those who questioned its rightness, and the minister praying for victory are all signs of the shift to a mythic perception of reality. A stranger comes and explains to people what it was they had actually prayed for. The stranger was still in sensory mode, grounded in factual reality. That people were in mythic mode instead is shown by the punch line: “It was believed this man was a lunatic, since there was no sense in what he said.”
This is not to say all wars are fought with most of the population in mythic mode. The World Wars were, but for example the American war in Vietnam wasn’t. The population never mobilized for it. There were no popular war songs. When factual data from Vietnam came through on television sets, people were still in sensory mode. And so they were appalled.
I’ll leave it to the reader to notice how the above concept might apply to many areas of post-Dobbs backlash. It’s especially obvious with groups like Jane’s Revenge, but it can also be seen in much of mainstream media and pronouncements of certain politicians.
Of course, it’s not a mobilization of the entire society, and major portions of society are only influenced by it rather than having fully shifted out of normal-reality mode. But those of us who are active on abortion can feel it keenly. I personally find the sting of that backlash in my own friends with a level of hostility badly out of bounds.
I’ve said for a long time that one of my major motivations for being active on the consistent life ethic is that the peace movement can’t be successful in achieving peace if it doesn’t act like a peace movement.
We may be able better to figure out how to counter this if we know when a mythic mode of thinking is there. It’s frustrating that simply explaining things well doesn’t work, but people have to be in the frame of mind that goes with caring about explanations.
But the good news is that this is by its nature temporary. War hysteria doesn’t maintain itself well. While the bits of belligerency will last awhile, there will come a point when the negative energy will soften. Our job is to help make that sooner rather than later.
For more of our posts on similar topics, see: